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Chaos Rules!

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Generally, when you get a large number of independent actors, each with their own separate motivations, all interacting in the same space, chaos results. Does this sound familiar? It should. It describes pretty much what happens everywhere in the "real" world. From air masses bumping across the Earth's surface to stock traders bidding against each other to political hacks vying for power, it characterizes most of the systems we know of.

I get a kick out of folks, especially social-minded types, who imagine they can "engineer" complex systems in the real world. Experienced engineers know that, as the eighteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Burns said:

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Three articles in this morning's Wall Street Journal pointed out the futility of ignoring the chaotic nature of the Universe in which we live.

First, as everyone knows, North America has been in the grip of a horrendous cold snap that has been causing death and destruction as far south as southern Florida (where I live). Where's global warming when you need it? It's eclipsed by the fact that weather, and by extension climate in general, is a thoroughly chaotic system. As I've been pointing out for ... a very long time ... the whole greenhouse model on which the global warming debate is based is unrealistically simple. It makes a nice example when teaching radiative heat transfer in Freshman physics class, but as a model for global climate? Forget it. The Earth's climate is a thoroughly chaotic system dominated by things humans have no control over.

The same folks who've been yammering about climate change were lambasted in a new book by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. I haven't read the thing, yet, but according to accounts from those who have, the chief lambastee is our Commander in Chief, who threw in the towel when his strategy for the Afghan War didn't produce the results he expected on the time scale he expected them. Gee, what's new? Other people don't react the way you want them to. They react the way they want to, and that usually has nothing to do with your plans.

It's not just humans who do what they want, rather than what you want. Microbes (arguably the real apex predator at the top of the global food chain) don't give a rat's left butt cheek for human technology, either. Coming up with a silver-bullet antibiotic, for example, just plays right into their hands. They take up the challenge and beat you every time. The latest is news of a "nightmare bacteria" laying waste to patients at Advocate Lutheran Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. Folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that this antibiotic-resistant bug evaded standard procedures for washing and sterilization of endoscopic equipment to infect 44 patients undergoing procedures. Since the things are immune to the effects of the usual carbapenem antibiotic treatment, doctors have had to resort to a cocktail of multiple antibiotics in the hope of beating the things down to a level where the patients' immune systems could cope.

These three stories are just examples of what goes on in a chaotic Universe. Virtually every article reports unintended consequences of what somebody thought was a good idea at the time. The moral of this story is that the predictable mechanistic Universe of Newtonian physics is an illusion. Predictability on any meaningful timescale is a fool's dream. The only viable strategy is to take Murphy's Law as gospel. Plan for the worst and you won't be disappointed.


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